In 2003 the US National Security Agency (NSA) had already started systematically violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) under its director General Michael Hayden. These were the days of the “Total Information Awareness” program. Before PRISM was ever dreamed of, under orders from the Bush White House the NSA was already aiming to “collect it all, sniff it all, know it all, process it all, exploit it all.” During the same period, Google—whose publicly declared corporate mission is to collect and “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”—was accepting NSA money to the tune of $2 million to provide the agency with search tools for its rapidly accreting hoard of stolen knowledge.
In 2004, after taking over Keyhole, a mapping tech startup cofunded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the CIA, Google developed the technology into Google Maps, an enterprise version of which it has since shopped to the Pentagon and associated federal and state agencies on multimillion-dollar contracts.54 In 2008, Google helped launch an NGA spy satellite, the GeoEye-1, into space. Google shares the photographs from the satellite with the US military and intelligence communities. In 2010, NGA awarded Google a $27 million contract for “geospatial visualization services.”
Around the same time, Google was becoming involved in a program known as the “Enduring Security Framework” (ESF), which entailed the sharing of information between Silicon Valley tech companies and Pentagon-affiliated agencies “at network speed.” Emails obtained in 2014 under Freedom of Information requests show Schmidt and his fellow Googler Sergey Brin corresponding on first-name terms with NSA chief General Keith Alexander about ESF. Reportage on the emails focused on the familiarity in the correspondence: “General Keith . . . so great to see you . . . !” Schmidt wrote. But most reports overlooked a crucial detail. “Your insights as a key member of the Defense Industrial Base,” Alexander wrote to Brin, “are valuable to ensure ESF’s efforts have measurable impact.”
In 2012, Google arrived on the list of top-spending Washington, DC, lobbyists—a list typically stalked exclusively by the US Chamber of Commerce, military contractors, and the petrocarbon leviathans. Google entered the rankings above military aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, with a total of $18.2 million spent in 2012 to Lockheed’s $15.3 million. Boeing, the military contractor that absorbed McDonnell Douglas in 1997, also came below Google, at $15.6 million spent, as did Northrop Grumman at $17.5 million.
If anything has changed since those words were written, it is that Silicon Valley has grown restless with that passive role, aspiring instead to adorn the “hidden fist” like a velvet glove. Writing in 2013, Schmidt and Cohen stated,
What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century, technology and cyber-security companies will be to the twenty-first.
This was one of many bold assertions made by Schmidt and Cohen in their book, which was eventually published in April 2013. Gone was the working title, “The Empire of the Mind”, replaced with “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business”. By the time it came out, I had formally sought and received political asylum from the government of Ecuador, and taken refuge in its embassy in London. At that point I had already spent nearly a year in the embassy under police surveillance, blocked from safe passage out of the UK. Online I noticed the press hum excitedly about Schmidt and Cohen’s book, giddily ignoring the explicit digital imperialism of the title and the conspicuous string of pre-publication endorsements from famous warmongers like Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Bill Hayden and Madeleine Albright on the back.
Billed as a visionary forecast of global technological change, the book failed to deliver—failed even to imagine a future, good or bad, substantially different to the present. The book was a simplistic fusion of Fukuyama “end of history” ideology—out of vogue since the 1990s—and faster mobile phones. It was padded out with DC shibboleths, State Department orthodoxies, and fawning grabs from Henry Kissinger. The scholarship was poor—even degenerate. It did not seem to fit the profile of Schmidt, that sharp, quiet man in my living room. But reading on I began to see that the book was not a serious attempt at future history. It was a love song from Google to official Washington. Google, a burgeoning digital superstate, was offering to be Washington’s geopolitical visionary.